One of my favorite things to do in used bookstores is to pick up old editions of early books by now-famous writers, just to see what kind of packaging their books received when they were just starting out. Turns out that some of the biggest names in English-language literature also began their careers with scant author bios, tepid reviews, and random blurbs! (Okay, some of them were big from the start too, but that’s neither here nor there.)
So just for fun, I’ve collected the first bios of 30 famous writers below—with names, books, and spouses redacted. Some of the answers should be pretty obvious to anyone with a working knowledge of contemporary literature and recent literary history; others are so stripped-down as to be nearly unguessable. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.
You can see the answers by highlighting the space after each Answer:, so let us know your score in the comments!
___________’s mother’s family stems from Alabama, her father’s from Texas, so she feels “primarily a Southerner.” She was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1921.
Both her parents were commercial artists and, because her mother was busy with her work, ___________ was raised mainly by her grandmother, until she was six, when her mother and stepfather brought her to New York.
___________ went to the Julia Richman High School and then to Barnard College, where in her senior year she edited the magazine.
She likes playing the piano, drawing and sculpture, and has had some drawings and sculpture in group shows in New York.
She is very fond of traveling, and takes a trip to New Orleans, Charleston or Texas every year. She would like to find out how to combine traveling with a life slow enough to write books, and find out how to make money enough to do either.
___________ admires Faulkner, both what he has done with his life and his writing. Next to Faulkner she admires Melville.
She has begun a second novel, which is well under way, thanks to a twenty-one-day cruise on a slow Italian freighter from Genoa to Philadelphia. And she has had short stories published in Harper’s Bazaar, The Woman’s Home Companion, and other magazines. One of her stories was in an O. Henry Collection
Answer: Patricia Highsmith; bio from the first edition of Strangers on a Train (1950)
The son of a Harlem clergyman, ___________ was born in New York City in 1924. In 1945 ___________ received a Eugene Saxton Fellowship, and in 1948 he was granted one by the Rosenwald Foundation. He has contributed to Commentary, The Reporter, Partisan Review, American Mercury, The New Leader, and a number of other publications.
___________ is now living in France, at work on his second novel.
Answer: James Baldwin; bio from the first edition of Go Tell it On the Mountain (1953)
___________, who is twenty-four years old, is a 1985 graduate of Amherst College. He is currently studying for an MFA at the University of Arizona in Tuscon.
Answer: David Foster Wallace; bio from the first edition of The Broom of the System (1987)
___________ was born in 1954 in Nagasaki, Japan, and came to Britain in 1960. He attended the University of Kent at Canterbury, then took an M.A. in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. Previous occupations include community work in a problem area of Glasgow, and working in a Cyrenian house for homeless people in London. He plays various musical instruments, and enjoys the cinema and travel. he lives in London.
Answer: Kazuo Ishiguro; bio from the first edition of A Pale View of Hills (1982)
___________ was born in New York City in 1969. His journalism has appeared in Vibes, Spin, Newsday, and The Village Voice, where he was a television columnist. A graduate of Harvard College, he currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Answer: Colson Whitehead; bio from the first edition of The Intuitionist (1999)
___________ was born in Rhode Island in 1933 but moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, at the age of four. He grew up in a rural area similar to that described in ___________. He finished high school in 1951 and attended the University of Tennessee the following year. His record there was so poor that he was asked not to return, and the next year he spent wandering about the country and working at odd jobs. In 1953 he enlisted in the Air Force for four years, two of which were spent in Alaska. After his discharge he returned to Tennessee and ultimately to the university. He attended there for four years but left without taking a degree.
___________ began work on ___________ in 1959, but the necessities of life delayed its completion. He is at present working on two more novels.
Answer: Cormac McCarthy; bio from the first edition of The Orchard Keeper (1965)
___________ was born in Pasadena, California, and has been writing since she was ten years old. During her college years, she won a few short story contests including a fifth prize in the Writer’s Digest Short Story Contest. She was encouraged by Harlan Ellison, who taught one of her writing classes, to attend the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop then being held in Clarion, Pennsylvania. Ms. Ellison [sic] also included one of her stories written at Clarion in his anthology The Last Dangerous Visions. ___________ currently lives and works in Los Angeles. This is her first novel.
Answer: Octavia Butler; bio from the first edition of Patternmaster (1976)
___________ was born in 1959 and grew up it St. Louis. A graduate of Swarthmore College, he worked in Harvard University’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences from 1983 to 1987. He and his wife, ___________, currently live in New York City.
Answer: Jonathan Franzen; bio from the first edition of The Twenty-Seventh City (1988)
___________ is twenty-four years old and a graduate of Cambridge University. ___________ is her first novel, parts of which have appeared in Granta. ___________ lives in North London.
Answer: Zadie Smith; bio from the first American edition of White Teeth (2000)
___________ was born in 1954 and grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota. She is of German and Chippewa descent, and belongs to the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. Her stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Redbook, and North American Review. She now lives in New Hampshire with her husband, ___________, and their children.
Answer: Louise Erdrich; bio from the first edition of Jacklight (1984)
___________ is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley. She lives in Honolulu with her husband and small son, and teaches English and creative writing at a small school there. ___________ is her first book.
Answer: Maxine Hong Kingston; bio from the first edition of The Woman Warrior (1976)
___________ was born in Greenwood, Mississippi, and educated at the University of Mississippi and Bennington College.
Answer: Donna Tartt; bio from the first edition of The Secret History (1992)
___________ lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, with her husband and two sons. ___________ is her first book.
Answer: Marilynne Robinson; bio from the first edition of Housekeeping (1980)
___________ grew up in Wingham, Ontario and later attended the University of Western Ontario. She married in 1951 and moved to British Columbia where she now lives with her husband and three daughters. Her husband owns a bookstore in Victoria where, she says, “we live in a big old house with an antique furnace and a garden the tourist buses try not to notice.”
Answer: Alice Munro; bio from the first edition of Dance of the Happy Shades (1968)
___________ lives in Champaign, Illinois.
Answer: Richard Powers; bio from the first edition of Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance (1985)
___________ was born in Oakland, California, in 1952, two and a half years after her parents immigrated to the United States. Though her parents anticipated she would become a neurosurgeon by trade and a concert pianist by hobby, she instead became a consultant to programs for disabled children, and later a freelance writer. She visited China for the first time in 1987 and found it was just as her mother said: “As soon as my feet touched China, I became Chinese.”
She lives in San Francisco with her husband. ___________ is her first book.
Answer: Amy Tan; bio from the first edition of The Joy Luck Club (1989)
In this, his first novel, ___________ reveals a New England town, a girl, and a secret older than history. His chilling tale takes hold of the reader, from the first bizarre incident to the last blossoming terror. ___________ is a school teacher who lives in Maine with his wife and two children.
Answer: Stephen King; bio from the first edition of Carrie (1974)
___________ was born in Bombay 27 years ago and educated at Rugby and King’s College, Cambridge. ___________ is his first novel.
Answer: Salman Rushdie; bio from the first edition of Grimus (1975)
___________ works as a geophysical engineer in Rochester, NY. He has explored for oil in Sumatra, played guitar in a Texas bar band, and worked in a slaughterhouse. ___________ lives in Rochester with his wife and children.
Answer: George Saunders; bio from the first edition of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996)
Born twenty-seven years ago in the Sacramento Valley, ___________ was graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, won first prize in Vogue‘s 1956 Prix de Paris, and has lived since in New York and California. An editor on Vogue, she has written for a number of magazines, including Vogue and Mademoiselle. ___________ is her first novel.
Answer: Joan Didion; bio from the first edition of Run, River (1963)
___________ is a first novel, but since 1939 short stories, reviews, criticism and articles by ___________ have appeared in such publications as Horizon, The Reporter, The Saturday Review of Literature, The New York Times Book Review and many others. He majored in music at Tuskegee Institute (1933-1936), where he worked his way with the assistance of a scholarship from the State of Oklahoma (he was also granted a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1945). ___________ has been everything from shoeshine boy to first trumpeter in a jazz orchestra. Indications of his versatility: He came to New York City in 1936 to study sculpture and music composition, and ended up a writer; once worked as a professional photographer; participated in the New York City Writer’s Project; lectured on various aspects of American Negro culture, folklore, Joyce, Melville, the cinema, etc., at New York University and Bennington College; principal hobby: experimental audio-electronics.
Answer: Ralph Ellison; bio from the first edition of Invisible Man (1952)
___________ was born in London and grew up in Rhode Island. She lives in New York City.
Answer: Jhumpa Lahiri; bio from the first edition of Interpreter of Maladies (1999)
___________ is a newspaperman from El Dorado, Arkansas. He worked on the New York Herald Tribune and was its London correspondent. This is his first novel. Like ___________, he is an ex-Marine and likes hillbilly songs.
Answer: Charles Portis; bio from the first edition of Norwood (1966)
During the busy years following the childhood described in this book, ___________ studied dance in San Francisco and toured Europe and Africa for the State Department in Porgy and Bess. She taught dance in Rome and Tel Aviv. In collaboration with Godfrey Cambridge, she produced, directed and starred in Cabaret for Freedom at New York’s Village Gate; she also starred in Genet’s The Blacks at the St. Mark’s Playhouse. At the request of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ___________ became the Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. From there she went to Africa, writing for newspapers in Cairo and Ghana. She has written and produced a ten-part TV series on the positive African issues in American life. She now lives in New York City.
Answer: Maya Angelou; bio from the first edition of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)
___________ was born in New Orleans in 1971. She now lives in Berkeley, California, with her husband, the poet ___________ . ___________ is her first novel.
Answer: Anne Rice; bio from the first edition of Interview With the Vampire (1976)
___________ was born in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1912 and was educated at Thayer Academy in South Braintree. Since his four years in the army he has divided his time between New York, New Hampshire, and Westchester. In 1951 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and at present is writing for the Columbia Broadcasting System. His work has appeared in magazines and anthologies and collections of short stories, many of them reprinted in England and in France. All of the stories in this volume came out in The New Yorker during the postwar years.
Answer: John Cheever; bio from the first edition of The Enormous Radio and Other Stories (1953)
___________ was born and lives in New York City. ___________ is his first novel.
Answer: Don DeLillo; bio from the first edition of Americana (1971)
Born twenty-six years ago in Newark, New Jersey, ___________ was graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Bucknell University, and received an M.A. from the University of Chicago, where he has been an Instructor of English for the last two years.
___________ has had stories published in the Chicago Review, Commentary, Epoch, Esquire, Harper’s, The New Yorker, and The Paris Review. His story ___________ appeared in the 1956 edition of Martha Foley’s Best American Short Stories, and ___________ will appear in her 1959 edition. ___________ was awarded the 1958 Aga Khan Prize for Fiction by the editors of The Paris Review. ___________ has also written movie reviews for The New Republic, and is currently at work on a novel.
Answer: Philip Roth; bio from the first edition of Goodbye, Columbus (1959)
___________ was born in New Orleans; he is twenty-three. He has written speeches for a third-rate politician, danced on a river boat, made a small fortune painting flowers on glass. read scripts for a film company, studied fortunetelling with the celebrated Mrs. Acey Jones, worked on The New Yorker, and selected anecdotes for a digest magazine. The first of his stories to attract attention was written when he was seventeen. It appeared in the magazine Story. Other of his stories have been in Harper’s Bazaar, The Atlantic Monthly, Mademoiselle, and in such anthologies as the O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories and the Best American Short Stories.
Answer: Truman Capote; bio from the first edition of Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948)
___________, we are reliably informed, is perhaps the only contemporary writer who is a practicing amateur witch, specializing in small-scale black magic and fortune telling with a tarot deck. Although the tarot deck has proved an inspiration for no less a figure than T. S. Eliot, a better index to ___________ ‘s work is that she is a successful short story writer (in The New Yorker, Mademoiselle, The American Mercury, The Yale Review, and others) and the mother of a boy and a girl, which may account for her penetrating pictures of children in ___________.
She was born 28 years ago in California, where this story is laid, and later moved to Rochester, N.Y. She attended Syracuse University where she met her husband, ___________, New Yorker staff writer. At Syracuse she wrote most of the college literary magazine which, under her guidance, frightened its backers by making enormous profits.
Shortly after graduation she married and held a succession of unpleasant and badly paid jobs, including reading proofs for a printer who specialized in small type and columns of figures. Deciding that such work was not for her, she and her husband moved to Vermont, where she wrote her first published story and embarked on a writing career.
Answer: Shirley Jackson; bio from the first edition of The Road Through the Wall (1948)